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Kafka on the Power of Music and the Point of Making Art

“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts.”

“Without music life would be a mistake,” proclaimed Nietzsche, one of the legion of celebrated thinkers who have contemplated the unparalleled power of music. Two generations later, Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) — another writer of glooming genius and talent for illumination via strong dark pronouncements — turned to the subject in his itinerant dialogues with his teenage walking companion and ideological interlocutor Gustav Janouch, collected in Conversations with Kafka (public library), which also gave us the brooding author on Taoism, appearance versus reality, and love and the power of patience.

During a walk in the summer of 1922, the conversation turns to music — a subject the seventeen-year-old Gustav wished passionately to study, but his father forbade the pursuit. Kafka tells his young companion:

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the subjective world.

In a subsequent conversation, when Gustav shares with his mentor a short story he has written titled The Music of Silence, Kafka elaborates on how music casts its spell on the soul:

Everything that lives is in flux. Everything that lives emits sound. But we only perceive a part of it. We do not hear the circulation of the blood, the growth and decay of our bodily tissue, the sound of our chemical processes. But our delicate organic cells, the fibres of brain and nerves and skin are impregnated with these inaudible sounds. They vibrate in response to their environment. This is the foundation of the power of music. We can set free these profound emotional vibrations. In order to do so, we employ musical instruments, in which the decisive factor is their own inner sound potential. That is to say: what is decisive is not the strength of the sound, or its tonal colour, but its hidden character, the intensity with which its musical power affects the nerves. [Music] must … elevate into human consciousness vibrations which are otherwise inaudible and unperceived… [bring] silence to life… uncover the hidden sound of silence.

In another conversation, he considers the parallels and differences between music and poetry — something Patti Smith would contemplate nearly a century later. Kafka tells Gustav:

Music creates new, subtler, more complicated, and therefore more dangerous pleasures… But poetry aims at clarifying the wilderness of pleasures, at intellectualizing, purifying, and therefore humanizing them. Music is a multiplication of sensuous life; poetry, on the other hand, disciplines and elevates it.

And yet Kafka is swift to recuse himself of authority on music:

Music for me is rather like the sea… I am overpowered, wonderstruck, enthralled, and yet afraid, so terribly afraid of its endlessness. I am in fact a bad sailor.

Still, for Kafka the magnitude of his overwhelm was perhaps the most direct measure of the intensity of his love. “I don’t want to know what you are wearing,” he once wrote in one of his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters, “it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

When Gustav laments his father’s veto on music and wonders whether having a head of his own gives him the right to disobey his father’s wishes and pursue his passion, Kafka dilates the question into a larger meditation on why artists make art:

Using one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing it… Of course, I am not saying anything against your studying music. On the contrary! … The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason… There is passion behind every art. That is why you fight and suffer for your music… But in art that is always the way. One must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.

In another conversation, he revisits the subject and likens the sacrifices of art to those of religious devotion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity [and,] taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer” — and what else is art if not generosity of the highest degree? — Kafka tells Gustav:

Prayer and art are passionate acts of will. One wants to transcend and enhance the will’s normal possibilities. Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. Prayer means casting oneself into the miraculous rainbow that stretches between becoming and dying, to be utterly consumed in it, in order to bring its infinite radiance to bed in the frail little cradle of one’s own existence.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly profound, almost prayerful Conversations with Kafka with Aldous Huxley on what gives music its transcendent power, then revisit Kafka on why we read and his remarkable letter to his abusive and narcissistic father.


Kafka on Taoism, the Nature of Reality, and the Truth of Human Life

“Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.”

In his mid-twenties, after completing his education for a legal career, Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) took a job at an insurance company. He remained there for twelve years and was only able to write on nights and weekends, which is how he composed The Metamorphosis. In the last four years of his life, Kafka befriended a seventeen-year-old Czech boy named Gustav Janouch — the son of a colleague at the insurance company. The two would take long walks together, conversing about literature and life — walks to which Kafka brought the same sorrowful radiance that lends his prose its timeless enchantment.

Decades after Kafka’s death, Janouch published his recollections of these bipedal discourses as Conversations with Kafka (public library) — the source of the beloved author’s reflections on love and the power of patience and appearance versus reality.


In one of their encounters, Kafka shares with the boy his fascination with Taoism and Eastern philosophy, particularly the aphoristic writings of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu (who was also a major influence for Bruce Lee). “They are a sea in which one can easily drown,” he cautions his young friend, but this overwhelming quality is precisely what gives these ancient teachings their timeless wisdom. Kafka tells Janouch:

Wisdom [is] a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying.


The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.

Janouch recounts that after delivering this observation, Kafka “laughed like a happy summer excursionist” — the perfect poetic image to capture the writer’s singular entwining of the nihilistic and the ennobling. With an admiring eye to Taoism’s central philosophy, Kafka adds:

Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost. All it guarantees us is what is superficial, the facade. But one must break through this. Then everything becomes clear.


There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death… There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly electrifying Conversations with Kafka with a Zen master’s explanation of death and the life-force to a child and Dostoyevsky on how we come to know truth, then revisit Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.


Keep the Keyhole Clean: Kafka on Appearance vs. Reality and How the Media Commodify Truth

“Truth, which is one of the few really great and precious things in life, cannot be bought. Man receives it as a gift, like love or beauty.”

Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) spent twelve years working at an insurance company, where he remained well after The Metamorphosis was published. One spring morning in 1920, his colleague’s teenage son — a seventeen-year-old Czech boy named Gustav Janouch — turned up at the company office and struck an unlikely friendship with Kafka. For the remaining four years of the author’s life, the two got into the habit of taking long walks together, conversing about literature and life.

Long after Kafka’s death, Janouch assembled his notes and published his recollections of these movable interchanges in Conversations with Kafka (public library) — the same 1951 treasure that gave us the beloved author on love and the power of patience.

In one of their conversations, carried out in the twilight hours of a rainswept day, Kafka tells his young friend:

Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.

Another exchange with young Gustav calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s magnificent meditation on being vs. appearing as Kafka revisits the difficulty of keeping the keyhole clean:

The road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travelers. We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.

In another conversation, he considers how popular opinion and the press serve to further obscure reality behind appearances:

People talk loud and long, in order to say as little as possible. The really true and interesting things are the intrigues in the background, about which not a word is mentioned.

When Gustav observes that Kafka seems to view the press as far from a “servant of truth,” the author responds:

Truth, which is one of the few really great and precious things in life, cannot be bought. Man receives it as a gift, like love or beauty. But a newspaper is a commodity, which is bought and sold.


Everything, even lies, advances the truth. Shadows do not blot out the sun.

In another conversation, Kafka examines the role of myth and ritual in modern life — but, against the backdrop of his opinions on the role of the press in the construction and obfuscation of truth, one can’t help but consider Kafka’s words through the lens of the media’s function as a vehicle of constructing, disseminating, and ritualizing the idea-myths of our time:

A myth becomes true and effective by daily use, otherwise it only remains a bewildering play of fantasy. For that reason, every myth is bound up with the practical exercise of a rite.

Complement Conversations with Kafka with the celebrated author on what books do for the human spirit and his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.


Kafka on Love and Patience

“Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing.”

One March morning in 1920, a Czech teenager named Gustav Janouch arrived at the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institution, where his father worked. The purpose of the visit was for the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet to meet his father’s famous colleague, Metamorphosis author Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924), who had been laboring at the insurance company for twelve years. The two struck an unlikely friendship and for the remaining four years of Kafka’s life, they frequently shared long walks through the city, talking about literature and life.

In 1951, long after Kafka’s death, Janouch published his recollection of these remarkably rich walking talks as Conversations with Kafka (public library).

What makes these conversations so compelling is that much of what is said counters the familiar image of Kafka as a creature of grievance and gloom. Perhaps because we are constantly entraining each other through conversation and the young man’s openhearted optimism awakened dormant parts of Kafka’s spirit, there is radiance in a great deal of what they discuss — art (“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts.”), poetry (“Goethe says practically everything that matters to us human beings.”), and love.

In reflecting on the anguish of ill-fated love affairs, Kafka offers a magnificent definition of love and its hazards, at once utterly elevating and utterly grounding:

What is love? After all, it is quite simple. Love is everything which enhances, widens, and enriches our life. In its heights and in its depths. Love has as few problems as a motor-car. The only problems are the driver, the passengers, and the road.

Far more often than we like to imagine, those problems can steer the car toward a crash. Kafka himself was intimately familiar with heartbreak, as evidenced by his beautiful and harrowing love letters. But perhaps because “heartbreak is how we mature,” his own experience is what allowed the author to offer young Gustav such strangely assuring advice in comforting the Gustav’s distress over his parents’ divorce — a rupture of the heart that had rendered him hopeless about the possibility of happiness in love. Echoing Nietzsche’s belief that a fulfilling life requires embracing difficulty, Kafka urges the young man to stay present with his difficult emotions:

Just be quiet and patient. Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Do not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness.

On their following walk, he revisits the subject. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s unforgettable advice on love“If it is right, it happens,” he counseled his lovestruck teenage son. “The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” — Kafka tells young Gustav:

Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing… There is no such thing as bending or breaking. It’s a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided. To abandon that path is always to break in pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself. The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love. One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, already see the young fresh green of spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait. Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true.

Conversations with Kafka is a trove of often dark, sometimes radiant, always profound insight from one of the most complex and compelling minds humanity has produced. Complement this particular portion with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love and Milan Kundera on the central ambivalences of life and love.


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